Buddha on the Marsh

By Stephanie Hunt

For a guy who spends mornings in silent meditation then hours working quietly in his studio, John Duckworth is in constant conversation. His art and creative process—his life, really—is an ongoing dialogue. A discourse between the various mediums in which he works—photography and painting, camera and canvas, place and process—and the range of work he produces, from graphic design to film and video, to performance art, and between the different roles and personas that comprise the enigmatic John Duckworth: father, artist, collaborator, friend, cyclist, yogi, student, spiritual journeyman.

But mostly, and especially in this exhibition, Duckworth’s art arises from an ongoing internal banter between the mundane and the mindful, between Western consumer-based glut and Eastern contemplative emptiness, between the everyday surface of things and a deeper, more intuitive reality.

His desire as an artist is to invite us, the observer, into this conversation. With “Awake,” Duckworth has crafted a point of entry and constructed an enveloping pilgrim’s path within the gallery space, in hope that we, the gallery goer, will become more than a mere observer. That we might approach the work from an open and receptive mindset and become an active participant, just as he, the real live dude, tall and lanky, monkishly bald and bare-chested, will be a participant, sitting still in hushed meditation, a cross-legged breathing sculpture integrated physically into the show.

John Duckworth may be silent, but his work—this work—speaks loudly. “Wake up!” it implores, as serene Buddhas peer slanty-eyed through layers of complex imagery and visual static. And in doing so, this exhibit, this artistic conversation if you will, reflects the emerging consciousness of the artist himself, a personal creative and spiritual awakening.

The impetus for AWAKE dates back to 2006, when Duckworth, a San Diego native who is formally trained in painting and photography and a studio art graduate of the College of Charleston, was beginning to enjoy recognition and acclaim for his work, especially his abstract landscape photography. His work had been exhibited coast to coast, in 30-some solo and group shows from Savannah to Miami to Chicago, LA and New York. In Charleston, a series of his landscape abstracts hung in the acclaimed FIG restaurant, where Duckworth’s canvases offered delicious visual counterpoint to the James Beard award-winning food of Chef Mike Lata. Professionally Duckworth was at a high point, but then in 2007, divorce took his personal life to a devastating low. “I was flattened in every way possible,” he says.

Artistically, Duckworth was already adept at experimenting with various mediums, and as a self-proclaimed perfectionist, he has always tinkered with and honed tonal ranges and image quality. But at this challenging personal juncture, Duckworth began looking more intentionally and experimentally at his inner life, considering it as he might a canvas, as a creative opportunity.

“Everything I do is experiential. My approach is always trial and response,” he says, noting that this holds true for his artistic techniques as well as for other passions, like cycling. Duckworth embarked a period of self-exploration, of “shining a light on every aspect of who I am,” he explains. This included experimenting with how various training regimens would impact his cycling (it led to winning a state championship Criterion race), to how changes in diet (becoming mostly vegetarian) would impact his energy levels and clarity.

With a balance of whimsy, curiosity and intentionality, Duckworth began investigating his inner self, adopting a mantra—“proceed with curious anticipation”—that directed his creative endeavors as well as his personal and spiritual dabbling. With the help of Kelly Jean Moore, founder of Charleston's Mission Yoga, Duckworth embarked on a more consistent yoga and mindfulness meditation practice. "This really seemed to kick-start a deeper exploration," says Duckwort, "a lasting curiosity."  

The daily practice of insight meditation and the discipline of observing habitual thoughts came naturally to Duckworth. It was not unlike his practice of observing the marsh as his landscape photography subject, a practice that he had always considered “meditative.” Through patience and astute awareness, Duckworth became adept at tuning in to the dynamic yet subtle marshscape, capturing the shifting play of light, the obscure variations in color.

Much like photography, insight meditation requires the discipline to awaken to another perspective, to adopt a contemplative frame from which to see things differently from the way we habitually see them, to fine tune an inner aperture, observing what is and what is not in focus.

“I began taking what I’d been learning through my sitting meditation practice and applying it to every aspect of my life and art,” Duckworth says. This process, this experiment, began reinvigorating his landscape abstracts and also infused new energy to his painting. A recurring Buddha motif dominated this new work and became a nucleus around which Duckworth explored the intersection between ancient Eastern philosophies and contemporary Western culture and its layers of chaos, incessant noise and palpable anxieties, its onslaught of visual stimuli and tech-driven disruption.

“All of this has been processed and translated in my work,” says the artist, who exhibited seven of the large Buddha compositions as the “Tunes and Whispered” show at London’s cueB Gallery earlier in 2014. These works are multi-layered and multi-faceted; they do not paint a shiny spiritual gloss over dark and intense realities. Through vivid juxtapositions, Duckworth acknowledges suffering, wrath and violence even as he strives for balance, harmony and inner peace.

“We all have these demons, the potential for darkness is there in everyone,” he notes. But the intention is to use mindfulness and conscious awareness to reveal a more compassionate and authentic human potential.  

Through his own Buddhist study and meditation practice, Duckworth has discovered new terrain in his creative process, and through witnessing the results of a deeper awareness of his habitual thoughts, words and actions, he has awakened to a more balanced presence in uncertain times. Likewise, his art offers a force, a jolting wakefulness, that helps the viewer pierce through the mind’s clutter. As observers we become participants; the artist meditates; his canvases mediate. The Buddha squints his eyes but we are the ones who begin to see. We glimpse a deeply rooted interrelatedness, a pathway to awareness and compassion.

“My art is a continual process of reinvention,” he says. For John Duckworth, painting, like meditation, is a mystery. “At its best, it is an open-ended conversation,” he says. A conversation that through AWAKE he opens to each of us.